Skylark, by Dezső Kosztolányi
There are some books I don’t want to write about. Instead, I just want to quote them. Passage after passage. These are books where once I finish them I have to accept that there’s nothing I can say about them that a quote wouldn’t say far more eloquently.
But, this wouldn’t be much of a blog entry if it were just a series of quotes. So, even though what I have to say is redundant in the face of Kosztolányi’s prose, I’ll add to his words with some of my own.
Skylark is a Hungarian novel written back in 1924, shortly after the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It’s set in 1899, during the last flower of that empire. It’s translated by Richard Aczel who has either done a wonderful job or is a gifted writer in his own right (or both) and it is here published by NYRB Classics.
Skylark is a 35 year old woman, which means she is no longer young by the standards of her time and culture. She is unmarried and lives with her elderly parents. The reason she is unmarried is a simple one: she is very ugly.
Skylark and her parents live their quiet lives in a provincial town. They seldom go out and have few visitors. Over the years, Skylark’s blighted hopes of marriage have led them to retreat into their own unit. They are self-contained, and perhaps happy. Change comes though when Skylark goes to spend a week with relatives in the country. Skylark cooks for her parents and in her absence they must go to the local restaurants. That means her parents reenter the social world, and discover that it is not as bad as they have been reassuring themselves.
As plots go it’s hard to find many less dramatic. Here an elderly man being welcomed back by old dining companions is a major event; a trip to the theatre equally so. The Dreyfus affair trundles on in the background, but Budapest is far away and Paris even further. In Skylark’s town of Sárszeg time seems to stand still. Things are as they seem they always have been and perhaps as they always shall be (though the reader knows 1914 is not far distant).
Not to put too fine a point on it, I thought Skylark a quiet masterpiece. That’s a big word, and not one I use often. Still, Kosztolányi earns it with a book that dazzled me with the calm precision of its prose and the deadly accuracy of its observations.
I should perhaps caution that others are less taken. John Self of The Asylum commented that although he had read it he had found nothing in it sufficiently interesting to merit a blog post (that’s not a direct quote, but hopefully is broadly accurate). I wrote recently about the chemistry between a book and a reader, for John clearly it was lacking here. Not so for me.
Kosztolányi’s great gift is his language. His style is economic. Here’s the opening paragraphs of the book:
The dining-room sofa was strewn with strands of red, white and green cord, clippings of packing twine, shreds of wrapping paper and the scattered, crumpled pages of the local daily, the same fat letters at the top of each page: Sárszeg Gazette, 1899.
Beside the mirror on the wall, in a pool of bright sunlight, a calendar showed the day and the month: Friday 1 September.
And through the window of an elaborately carved wooden case, the sauntering brass hands of a grandfather clock, which sliced the seemingly endless day into tiny pieces, showing the time: half past twelve.
Mother and Father were busy packing.
Reading that I know where I am: Sárszeg. I know the year, the month and even the day and the hour: half past twelve on Friday 1 September, 1899. I know that someone is going away, but the reference to the clock lets me know too that the days are not normally so eventful. Also of course I know that the couple here, Mother and Father, are defined by reference to a child.
What of that couple? Here are their descriptions:
Father wore a mouse-grey suit, the exact colour of his hair. Even his moustache was the same light shade of grey. Large bags of crumpled, worn, dry skin hung beneath his eyes.
Mother, as always, wore black. Her hair, which she slicked down with walnut oil, was not yet altogether white, and her face showed hardly a wrinkle. Only along her forehead rant two deep furrows.
Two short paragraphs, yet containing so much. There’s a sense for me of disappointment and of a withering. Those deep furrows speak to me of sorrows endured.
One of the many great joys of Skylark is Kosztolányi’s character portraits. As well as Mother and Father, and Skylark herself of course (of whom more shortly), there are people such as a young man whose “summer pimples bloomed brightly like ripe cherries” and a waitress “as pale as a damp bread roll.” This is prose that for me is a joy to read.
Central to it all is Skylark. I’ll leave Skylark’s own description for those who read the book. Here though is her room (and perhaps more than her room):
The room had once looked like a chapel, chaste and white.
But the paintwork had faded with time and the silk cushions had grown soiled and a little grey. In the cupboard stood empty cosmetic jars, prayer books from which the lace trimmings of devotional pictures protruded with German inscriptions, velvet-bound ornamental keepsake albums, fans scribbled thick with names, ball programmes, perfume sachets and hairpieces hanging from a length of string.
Beside the door in the darkest corner of the room, facing north, hung Skylark’s mirror.
Well, I said at the beginning of this piece I wouldn’t just quote. It really is hard not to though on this occasion.
The tragedy at the core of the story is swiftly apparent from the quotes above (all of which save the waitress come from the first thirty pages). Skylark’s ugliness has denied her an exit from the family home, but her presence has foreshortened her parents’ lives so that now they live together wrapped in a web of illusory comfort. Their existence rolls down the years, like the town of Sárszeg there seems a timeless quality to their lives. Father spends his days on genealogy, heraldry and tidying his affairs (“The last years of his life he spent increasingly in preparation for his death.”), Mother looks after the Home and Skylark looks after them both. They are complete.
With Skylark absent and the parents forced out of their small existence for the first time in years, the view shifts outwards taking in the wider life of Sárszeg. Father dines with the Panthers, the town’s drinking society who count the success of a night by how many times after it a man vomits. He takes Mother to the theatre where they are astonished by the wit and skill of the local players (who to the reader’s eyes seem woefully provincial). Father begins to enjoy a drink again, and a cigar. Mother buys a new bag. Their lives are flowering.
The question this raises is whether the break in routine created by Skylark’s brief absence marks a real chance of change in all their lives, or whether this is simply an Indian Summer before the final onset of autumn and winter.
Skylark is a novel with a powerful sense of wasted and frustrated lives. Skylark and her parents smother each other in the prison of their mutual love. A local poet writes to fashionable magazines but they do not print his works. The happiest here are those without ambition. The local fire chief and social lion of the town is delighted with life in Sárszeg as it is. He has no unmet goal and sleeps content. It is only those who reach beyond what is on offer who are unhappy.
All of which makes this sound a profoundly depressing novel. Well, to an extent certainly at times it is. It’s also though shot through with a lively wit and a fine comic touch which makes some scenes extremely funny. I spoke earlier of being dazzled by it, that’s because so often it sparkles.
I adored this book. For me, it was a perfect combination of prose, tone, wit and observation. I’ll be seeking out more Kosztolányi. Time I think for a quote from a different source, this one from Trevor Berrett of The Mookse and the Gripes whose own review alerted me to this marvellous novel.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
Nor can I, and I thank Trevor again for his recommendation.
For those wishing to read more, after reading Trevor’s review I found that Guy Savage over at His Futile Preoccupations had also covered it. His review is here. Both he and Trevor have insights that I found extremely valuable (and which I avoided rereading while writing this, so I’m off to look at them again now).
A final quote from Skylark. Three sentences that for me encapsulate the essence of the book.
Nothing had been settled or resolved. But at least they had grown tired. And that was something.